Tag Archives: Brigitte Mira


A dazzling work of mise-en-scène. Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus deploy a gliding camera, shifts in focus, compositions that group alliances or fractures, social and internal, with beauty and precision. Has anyone made more expressive use of a glass drinks cabinet? Doublings, decompositions, reflections, often filmed through glass or on mirrors. Nothing is as it seems in this movie and the process of discovery is brutal: ‘eavesdroppers often hear false truths’.

mirrors and reflections;


The setting is the real life Ballhaus family Schloss, but empty and with echoes of recent occupying army ransackings. The film has been compared to an Agatha Christie country house murder narrative such as AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. But there are limits to such a comparison: there are gun shots but no one is killed in this movie; and the wounding, psychic as it is, is also deep, primal and savage, going into areas Christie wouldn’t dream of.


The plot revolves around a couple, significantly named Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson). He’s ostensibly going on a trip to Oslo; she to Milan. But in fact both have arranged assignations with their lovers; he with his long-time mistress, Irene (the divine Anna Karina); she with Gerhard’s assistant Kolbe (Ulli Lommel, then Anna Karina’s partner). The problem is that their assignations are to take place in the family schloss, so they end up discovering each other’s adultery. All are sophisticated people of the world and try to behave elegantly. But things become more somber and delicate with the realisation that this has all been organised by the Christ’s daughter Angela (Andrea Schroeber).

Symphonic Opening Scene

Angela believes that her parents blame her for ruining their lives; that her father first took on a lover when she was diagnosed with a crippling disease that hampered the use of her legs; and that her mother took on a lover when Angela’s disability was pronounced incurable. In fact Angela thinks her mother wishes her dead, and the whole weekend has been designed by Angela, with the same precision that she enacts the role play of the dolls that surround her, to drive her mother to murder her. In fact games, strategy, enactments, role-play, through dolls, cards, chess, are running motifs in the film, culminating in Chinese Roulette, played viciously and with murderous intent. In the process the victim will become the victimiser, the Bad Seed,  or as John Mercer more colloquially puts it, The Exorcist’s Linda Blair on crutches.


The two couples are in tension with another set of four: Mrs. Kast (Brigitte Mira) who has some kind of underground or criminal relationship with Mr. Christ – ‘Ali Ben Basset has been murdered in Paris. We are the only two left,’ he tells her, a sort of McGuffin as this remains external to the main narrative but adds clouds of narrative possibilities that overhang but are never brought into focus. Just like Mrs. Kast’s son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), boot-boy and plagiarist, at the beginning of the film when he asks the petrol station attendant. ‘Have you ever been to hell?’ ‘Yes’.


The other two of that outside four are Angela herself and her nanny, Traunitz (Macha Méril). Traunitz has the kind of easy relationship with her charge that Angela wishes she had with her mother. They listen to techno – Kraftwerk: fun, rhythmic, partial —  instead of symphonies (Mahler’s Symphony No.8)  aiming for the totalising and divine. Traunitz herself is conducting a sexual relationship with Gabriel, who reciprocates though he seems himself as more androgynous, sexually more anarchic; and that includes a sexual tension depicted with Angela, who discovered he was a plagiarist years before and has the upper hand.


Fassbinder turns the tables here and explores the cruelty and harshness of the small and the weak to show the power and ruthlessness of the victim. That is basically the function of the character of the daughter. The mother is as is usual with Carstensen’s characters for Fassbinder, the target and recipient of much of the film’s sadism.

rhyming shot and another kind of discovery

When the game of Chinese Roulette begins, the verbal rapiers begin to wound, culminating in the question, ‘What Would This Person Have Been in The Third Reich?’ The film ends mysteriously with the sound of a gunshot, a night-time procession and a quotation from Christian wedding vows; a somewhat reductive ending as the film seems to have been about so much more than that.


According to wiki, Andrew Sarris devoted a whole university course to CHINESE ROULETTE.  I can understand why.


José Arroyo


MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN/ Mutter Küsters’ Fahrt zum Himmel (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1975)

A film that incited laughter, tears, and, towards the end a palpable sense of sustained dread – ‘please don’t let that happen’. Indeed, there is an alternate ending –gentle and utopian –that was filmed but shown only in the US, where it doesn’t.  As I watch Fassbinder’s work, mainly in chronological order, some films detach themselves from the rest as more beautiful, more meaningful, better; films I want to revisit again: THE MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS, THE TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, FEAR EATS THE SOUL. And to that I would now add MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN.

The film is set in Frankfurt, then the financial capital of West Germany, and already a site of terrorist actions. What we’re shown first is a close-up of plugs being assembled. Frau Küsters (Brigitte Mira) is a working-class housewife, making extra money by doing piece work from home. Her son Ernst (Armin Meier) is helping out as her daughter-in-law, Helene (Irm Hermann) makes a salad. She’s got a stew in the oven, one that needs more sausages, the way her husband likes it, and she’s multi-tasking with the plugs and the stew and conversation with her children about their upcoming vacation in Finland, the danger of preservatives in meat, the pros and cons and salads, when they overhear a report that some man in a factory got into an argument with a personnel supervisor and killed him before committing suicide himself. That man is Frau Küsters’ husband.

Soon the press descend. Her daughter, Corinna (Ingrid Caven), a cabaret singer returns home to support her mother but also to get press for her career. The whole family is interviewed. Her daughter Corinna starts an affair with the news reporter she trusts the most (Gottfried John) but even he twists all their words and her husband, who she sees as a nice, even-tempered man who never complained, fair and reliable, is headlined as a monster in the press.

The Spectre of Marlene still hovers (see above)

Is it significant that all of Mother Küster’s children are played by Fassbinder’s former or current lovers? Mother Küster loves all her children unconditionally. She accepts everything from them. And they love her also. But they’ve got their own lives. The first third of the film reminded me a little bit of Ozu’s TOKYO STORY. Everyone has their reasons. They do love each other and it’s nobody’s fault. But her son and daughter-in-law end up going on their vacation to Finland and missing their father’s funeral. The daughter exploits her father’s tragedy and moves out of her mother’s house and in with the journalist. At the funeral she vows to restore her husband’s name. But how? She’s all alone.

She’s befriended by a couple played by Margit Cartensen and Karlheinz Böhm , journalists, members of the Communist Party, and the wealthiest most bourgeois couple in the film. They offer her warmth and understanding and they’re the only ones who seem interested in clearing her husband’s name. The husband will be turned into a working class martyr murdered on the altar of capital.  Of course they’re using her, her daughter tells her. ‘Everybody’s out for something,’ she replies, ‘once you realise that, things get simpler’. Mother Küster’s simple, unaffected and naïve oration at the Communist Party meeting moved me to tears, partly because it contrasts so strongly with the film’s ironising of power relations, social, institutional and interpersonal.

It’s worth pointing out that all the film’s possibilities for exciting action (the revolt at the beginning, the shoot-out at the end) are left off-screen(see below).

 That’s not what Fassbinder’s interested in. Instead, we get Brigitte Mira’s sensitive, common-sensical and accepting everywoman, so emotionally transparent and so moving. Ingrid Caven as a low grade diva playing cheap dives and making the most of her moment in the spotlight with sub Marlene Dietrich, sub Brecht-Weill cynical chansons; a queerness that seeps through into laughter with the fat man dragged up as a ballerina, shaggy dark chest hair jutting out of his tutu, pirouetting for his life in the nightclub scene; and then that incredible last scene of the occupation of the magazine offices, where Mother Küster thinks she’s just participating in a sit-in to clear her husband’s name but, to her surprise, a gun appears and the whole action descends into tragedy.

Mother Küsters speaks to the Communist Party (above)

A critique of labour relations, of how the press distorts and manipulates, and an interrogation of whether left-wing parties and action groups are really interested in improving the life of a the proletariat. A moving portrait of complex family relations in the process of dissolution. A truly great film.


José Arroyo

EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY: EPISODE FOUR – HARALD AND MONIKA (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1973)


Fassbinder, like Sturges, Ford, Almodóvar and many other directors, seems to use the same company of actors over and over again, and part of the pleasure of watching their films is in familiarising oneself with the troupe and revelling in their skill and effectiveness as they play different roles over time. There’s no one I look forward to seeing in Fassbinder’s work more than Irm Hermann, so wonderful as the forceful presence that never speaks in THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT. Like Eve Arden she doesn’t need a big role to make her character felt.

This fourth episode has a twinned structure in that as Jochen (Gottfried John) and Marion (Hannah Schygulla) head to marriage, Harald (Kurt Raab) and Jochen’s sister Monica (Renate Roland) head to divorce. The tenderness, uncertainty and discussion of the first couple is juxtaposed with the patriarchal control, physical violence and lack of communication of the other. Luckily for Monica, she has the support of her female network, and though her mother isn’t very understanding, her grandmother, her aunt and Marion, all help devise a plan to get Harald to agree to a divorce and let her keep their daughter. It’s female solidarity in action.

The other story-lines are a bit clichéi-sh here: will Marion’s mother (Brigitte Mira) approve of Jochen, will they move in to the mother’s apartment or get their own place. Marion and Jochen fight over the wedding itself. He doesn’t want Irmgard (Irm Hermann) to be maid of honour. She’s too stuck up, certain, disapproves of Marion’s marrying a blue-collar worker who gets her hand dirty. Needless to say, and after many. Tears, Marion gets her way. Irmgard’s haughty condescension, her certainty, and the way her convictions melt with liquor and desire at the wedding itself are the episodes’ high point.

The wedding party takes up the last 30 minutes of the 95 minute episode and is a tour de force of staging, keeping up all the various relationships in play, dramatizing their alterations, and playing off social structures against individual desires and circumstances in ways that are easily legible to the viewer. Another marvellous episode, this one with a superb closing shot.

Irm Hermann in action


José Arroyo

Fear Eats The Soul/ Angst essen Seele auf (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1974)


I’ve seen FEAR EATS THE SOUL umpteen times now, and it never ceases to move me. Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a sixtyish charlady, walks out of the rain and into a bar and a new life when she meets Ali (El hedi Ben Salem), a much younger Moroccan ‘guestworker’. They like talking to each other, soon fall  in love and get married. The first third is all about the understanding two lonely people share, the building of a life, and the basking in a particular type of happiness, until now long forgotten,  that they both partake in: They love each other.  Brigitte Mira is so transparent in her needs, her common sense, her understanding of the hurdles to come that she’s heart-breaking to see. We know she will suffer because we know this is a melodrama where individual desires crash against the family and other repressive social forces that won’t allow the existence of an inter-racial coupling of such divergent ages. What is moving in the film is the delicacy of individual feeling against the harshness with which the social opprobrium is expressed.

In the second third of the film, her co-workers shun her; the shop-owner refuses to serve her; her own children are outraged, kick-in the television and call her a whore. It gets to the point Emmi can’t take it anymore. She’s so happy to be with Ali but breaks down at how punitive society has been and they decide to go away.

When they return from vacation in the last third of the film, social need reasserts itself and alters the mode and intensity of opprobrium. Her children need a babysitter; her neighbours need her cellar space; her co-workers need an ally. As Emmi re-gains her previous place in society, she becomes more like the people who oppressed her and soon she’s refusing to make cous-cous for Ali, berating him for not integrating better into German Society, and reducing him to a prized fetish she can show off to her friends. The more she does this, the more he strays. They become cruel to each other.

All seems about to be lost again, but in an end that almost responds to the beginning, Emmi walks back into that bar once more, they dance again and re-assert their understanding with fresh wisdom. In a typical Fassbinder twist on melodrama, this is just before Ali’s ulcer kicks in and an ambulance has to be called. Life will not be rosy; these attacks might recur every six months; it’s the stresses of an immigrant life says the doctor. But Emmi asserts that they will face these challenges together.

The film is shot very simply and elegantly, in frames within frames, so that we sometimes get a partial view, or it is indicated that the neighbours are spying, society is intruding, or that their little bit of happiness is just an illuminated part of a much harsher much colder world. Elements are repeated in the same way to quickly indicate changing circumstances; so for example when Emmi is shunned she is framed alone through a staircase; later in the film she does the same to a Yugoslavian immigrant; or earlier in the film when, in private, she sees Ali’s body in the mirror and tell him ‘You are so beautiful,’ in the last third of the film becomes the scene where she is asking him to show off his muscles to her co-workers: public, self-involved and demeaning. I love the way Fassbinder leaves a shot hanging rather than quickly cutting to the next scene, which underlines the filming of frames within frames in depth, conveying a feeling of danger, alienation and sadness, even when the occasion is meant to be a happy one, like the wedding meal at what was Hitler’s favourite restaurant.

Fassbinder had clearly been  thinking on this material as early as THE AMERICAN SOLDIER where we’re told a slightly different version of it. And one of the fascinating things about this film is how it’s similar to but also so different from ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, a film which clearly inspired it, and Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN, a film that was in turn influenced by both the Sirk and the Fassbinder. All great film, all great in different ways. FEAR EATS THE SOUL is the only one in which this story is told in an unapologetic working class setting, and very powerful for it.

The Arrow blu-ray contains a fascinating documentary on El hedi Ben Salem, an interview with Jürgen Jürges and much more. It’s a beautiful restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation as well.

José Arroyo